When I first came to the US in the late 1980s, Bangladesh was synonymous with poverty, natural disaster, and corruption. I remember my daughter, who then was in Middle School, came home one day complaining that her teacher had told the entire class that Bangladesh was the poorest and most corrupt country in the world. Not true, right? she asked me, fiercely shaking my hand.
Indeed, it was true.
Back then, Bangladesh was often used to illustrate something terrible. One of the first things that I still clearly recall is a New York Times report about the high infant mortality rate in New York's Harlem district. To emphasize how bad the situation was, the paper said, It was worse than Bangladesh. There was also a two-page article about arsenic in Bangladesh's water, which claimed people there were drinking poison. As for natural disasters, it was quite commonplace to describe Bangladesh as 'god-forsaken' for the deaths and destruction caused annually by floods and cyclones. The Times's Nicholas Kristof even joked that Bangladesh is rich in 'misfortunes'.
And then there was corruption. As a country consistently ranked among the most corrupt, derision toward it was common.
Now, three decades later, Bangladesh is a different country. Though floods and cyclones still hit at regular intervals, its disaster management has been so successful that the UN and other international bodies now consider it an exemplary practice. A BBC article described Bangladesh's disaster management as 'world-leading' and even called her a trailblazer in disaster management (https://bbc.in/3CdlC51)
As for fighting poverty, Bangladesh's success is even more spectacular. The country was once derided by a former US Secretary of State as a 'bottomless basket'. That was fifty years ago. Two years ago, Nickolas Kristoff of the same New York Times advised President Biden to check out Bangladesh after he announced an ambitious plan to fight hunger in the US. Her surprising success offers lessons about investing in the most marginalized, he wrote (https://nyti.ms/3GzodZt).
According to former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-mun, Bangladesh's success in development and fighting poverty is a model for the world. Ban spoke to a roomful of foreign diplomats with the Bangladesh Prime Minister standing beside him. I know it because I was present there.
In other words, Bangladesh's success against two menaces - poverty and natural disaster - has won her praise from all quarters. We are no longer known primarily for poverty and disaster. What, however, remains in place is corruption. Transparency International ranked Bangladesh as the world's most corrupt country in 2003. In 2021, she remains at the bottom of the global index, listed at 13.
It is not possible to measure the depth of our crisis solely based on Transparency International's corruption index. The index is a useful tool, but it only provides information about what foreign donors and executives think about doing business in and with Bangladesh. Ordinary citizens are the primary victims of corruption, and the TI index offers no insight into what they go through every day.
In older times, corruption often meant the abuse of power by the local police or petty officials. Humayun Ahmed once wrote a play about an old man's battle against a local government official who refused to sign off on his pension papers without a small envelope passed under the table. My own experience was less tumultuous. I recall visiting the local police station in Dhaka some years ago to obtain my birth certificate. Before I was able to make my case, I was told what it would cost if it was done within a day and how much it would cost after a week. A former finance minister, who called such payments 'speed money', advised against getting too fussy about it if the goal was to get the job done. So I complied.
That's all fine and dandy, but what do we do when the stake is much higher?
Speed money for birth certificates or passport renewals is manageable. But we all need to be concerned when the country's economic future is at stake. Consider the elderly couple in Dhaka who deposited all of their savings with one of the Islami Bank affiliates, hoping for a safety net. A much worse situation is when millions of rupees are sent abroad to buy luxury apartments and high-end businesses, or simply to deposit in foreign banks. In most cases, the laundered money is taken out of banks, often owned by the launderers, as loans never to be paid back. S Alam Group alone allegedly 'lifted' 30,000 crore taka from Islami Bank and its affiliates, according to Dhaka newspapers. No collateral was required for the loan, and no credit check was performed.
The Indian Express had an interesting take on this case. This 'humongous' loan, which could trigger a Sri Lanka-type collapse, was not possible without approval from the competent authority. If it occurred without such approval, then the government has a problem, it sauggested.
Of course, corruption and abuse of power go hand in hand. No country is immune to corruption. A former Vice-President in the US lost his job due to bribery. A former Prime Minister in Malaysia was recently sent to prison for kickbacks amounting to millions of dollars. The present President of South Africa faced serious indictment - but so far no jail time - after investigators found several millions of unreported dollars hidden in his sofa.
It should bring us no comfort to know that corruption is common throughout the world. Unless we protest and resist, both as individuals and collectively, we would help 'normalize' corruption and power abuse in general. As soon as this happens, there is no stopping our slide to the bottom.
So, what is to be done?
The rule of law and its strict adherence are the best ways to fight corruption. We cannot hope that our pious wishes for rule of law will save us from corruption when those in power aid and abate it. As citizens, we have the power to oppose the culture of corruption. Our voting choices and election of public officials could reflect this.
An important ally in this resistance could be the media, both local and national. But when corruption is endemic, the media system cannot stay above the fray from the current patron and client equation. Under such a prevailing reality, we may consider making better use of social media, including Facebook and Twitter.
The truth is we as citizens are not entirely without recourse. Numerous channels could be used to draw international attention, the most significant of which is the World Bank's Integrity Portal https://bit.ly/3Z87JyE. A similar portal is Transparency International's Advocacy and Legal Advice Center, which maintains a page just for Bangladesh (https://bit.ly/3jFA2Ex).
Now that our youth are highly adept at utilizing information and communications technology, we can easily develop our own oversight tools. In India, Swati and Ramesh Ramanathan, two human rights activists, have just done that. They have developed on their own a web-based platform that helps draw attention to everyday abuse of power and instances of corruption. Their website, I Paid Bribe (https://bit.ly/3GaVzMT), not only registers your complaint, but also provides practical advice.
Obviously, there is no silver bullet that can eliminate corruption and abuse of power overnight. In Mahatma Gandhi's words, change always requires an agent, so if you want change, act as its agent. We often say in the US that democracy is not a spectator sport. The fight against corruption is also a fight for democracy.
In just fifty years, Bangladesh has made great strides in eliminating poverty and combating natural disasters. It is now time to take action against the last of the three menaces, corruption. As the new year begins, let's reimagine another Bangladesh.
3 January 2023, New York
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